Spare the rod and develop the child

Hot on the heels of a horror story into alleged corporal punishment at a Gauteng school, a study has shown that such disciplinary measures can badly hinder a child's development.

The report, published on News24, talks of a video which allegedly shows a staff member at the school in question repeatedly hitting a 16-year-old pupil with a garden hose, and kicking him after he had fallen down - allegedly punishing the boy for being late for school. 

Corporal punishment has been banned in South Africa since the 1990s and this latest study adds credence to the long-held belief that 'sparing the rod' is actually better for the child.

The study showed that children in a school that uses corporal punishment performed significantly worse in tasks involving "executive functioning" – psychological processes such as planning, abstract thinking, and delaying gratification – than those in a school relying on milder disciplinary measures such as time-outs, according to a new study involving two private schools in a West African country.

The findings, published by the Journal Social Development, suggest that a harshly punitive environment may have long-term detrimental effects on children's verbal intelligence and their executive-functioning ability.

 As a result, children exposed to a harshly punitive environment may be at risk for behavioural problems related to deficits in executive-functioning, the study indicates.

Discipline versus corporal punishment

The study – by Prof Victoria Talwar of McGill University, Prof Stephanie M. Carlson of the University of Minnesota, and Prof Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, involved 63 children in kindergarten or first grade at two West African private schools.

 Their families lived in the same urban neighbourhood. The parents were largely civil servants, professionals and merchants.

In one school, discipline in the form of beating with a stick, slapping of the head, and pinching was administered publicly and routinely for offences ranging from forgetting a pencil to being disruptive in class. In the other school, children were disciplined for similar offences with the use of time-outs and verbal reprimands.

While overall performance on the executive-functioning tasks was similar in the younger children from both schools, the Grade 1 children in the non-punitive school scored significantly higher than those in the punitive school.

These results are consistent with research findings that punitive discipline may make children immediately compliant – but may reduce the likelihood that they will internalise rules and standards. That, in turn, may result in lower self-control as children get older.

'Corporal punishment didn't help kids'

"This study demonstrates that corporal punishment does not teach children how to behave or improve their learning," Prof Talwar said. "In the short term, it may not have any negative effects; but if relied upon over time it does not support children's problem-solving skills, or their abilities to inhibit inappropriate behaviour or to learn."

Despite the age-old debate over the effects of corporal punishment, few studies have examined the effects on executive-functioning ability. This new study uses a quasi-experimental design to derive data from a naturally occurring situation in which children were exposed to two different disciplinary environments.

The parents of children in both schools endorsed physical punishment equally, suggesting that the school environment can account for the differences found.

There are many further questions that remain unanswered. "We are now examining whether being in a punitive environment day in and day out will have other negative impacts on children such as lying or other covert antisocial behaviours. Also, we are pursuing the long term consequences of experiencing corporal punishment. For example, what would children's cognitive and social development be 5 or 10 years down the road?," said Lee.

The findings are relevant to current controversy. "In the US, 19 states still allow corporal punishment in schools, although more of them are now asking for parent permission to use it. With this new evidence that the practise might actually undermine children's cognitive skills needed for self-control and learning, parents and policy makers can be better informed," said Prof Stephanie M. Carlson. 

(EurekAlert, July 2011)

Read more:

Parents vs school violence

The spanking controversy

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